Friday, July 18, 2008

Get Up Stand Up: the history of pop and politics

The Get Up Stand Up series consists of six one hour documentaries detailing the history of popular music and its relationship to politics, social justice and the environment. The series looks predominantly at the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany and France, and the music composed and performed to illustrate and comment on profound social events.

Aired on Australia’s ABC in April/May 2005, the first documentary, We Shall Overcome focuses on music as it relates to the American Union movement, Apartheid and Civil Rights.

The introduction to this program sees the likes of Bono, Graham Nash from Crosby, Stills and Nash, Ed Sanders from the Fugs, Patti Smith, Michael Franti and others discussing the power of music and its ability to communicate messages and speak on events in society. Changing even just one person is considered to be an achievement, and it is recognised that the ability to make social changes is always present but needs a concerted effort and a conducive environment in order to be realised.

In discussing the events in the early 1900s with respect to the Union movement in the United States reference is made to artists such as Joe Hill who composed tracks such as Workers of the World, Union Scab, Rebel Girl, The Preacher and the Slave and There’s Power in a Union. Hill recognised that many people could not read or write at that time and considered music the best way to get messages across. As technology for recording was not developed or widespread, the music was performed live and passed on by word of mouth to inform, educate and empower the workers.

Joe Hill is considered to be the father of modern protest music, influencing the likes of Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan. He was eventually executed on a murder charge that many considered trumped up and designed to get him out of the way.

Other songs leading on from this era include Which Side Are You On which again refers to the Union movement and early civil rights songs such as Hard for a Blackman by Oscar Brand and Free and Equal Blues by Josh White.

Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and later Bob Dylan embraced the folk tradition and to many are seen as the real drivers of political music in the United States. Woody Guthrie’s, This Land is Yours and Ranger’s Command, Pete Seeger’s, If I Had a Hammer and Midnight Special all reflected the events taking place in society at that time.

Other instances of political censorship include the banning of The Weavers, who sang Marching to Pretoria, from public performances until 1955. The persecution of socialist thinkers at that time is reflected in the Peter Paul and Mary song, Have You Been To Jail For Justice.

The documentary also takes a detailed look at the music and events that took place with regard to the civil rights movement. Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King are the focus from a historical perspective with songs such as Pete Seeger’s adaptation of the 19th century negro gospel number We Shall Overcome and the Freedom Singer’s song, Freedom, demonstrating the use of music to reflect on current events.

The documentary also pays homage to Bob Dylan with songs such as Subterranean Homesick Blues, Mr Tambourine Man, Blowing in the Wind and Times they are a Changing all considered to be among his best political music at that time.

Johnny Cash is also mentioned, in particular his Bitter Tears album and the song Rusty Cage which refers to the treatment of native American Indians.

The documentary also considers events which have, and continue to take place in China with respect to human rights in Tibet and consideration is given to the Miller Rapper Fund set up by the Beastie Boys. Adam Yauch comments that music and concerts are one means of communicating a message and inspiring others to act. He considers grass roots political action such as letter writing, demonstrations and boycotts as the natural flow on effect from political music and the combination of the two which produces social change.

In the final part of this documentary Apartheid is considered with songs such as Peter Gabriel’s BIKO, Simple Mind’s Mandela Day, UB40’s Sing Our Own Song, Sade’s Why Cant We Live Together and the Artists United Against Apartheid’s Aint Going to Play Sun City and the Free Nelson Mandela song, all illustrative of the power of music to comment on and help change society.

As the opening documentary to this series I found this program to be incredibly detailed and informative. If you have the chance to see it I highly recommend it.

More Information

PBS <>

National Library of Australia <>

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